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YEMEN - The Pre-9/11 Background.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Yemen was often mentioned in the same breath as Afghanistan as a possible hideout for al-Qaeda. Many Yemenis, including prominent government officials, felt their country was next on a "hit list" after the US finished in Afghanistan. That fear was expressed by President Saleh during a speech in Aden in December 2005, when he claimed that he dissuaded the US from occupying Yemen after the Neo-Salafi attack on the USS Cole in October 2000.

Those fears stemmed from Yemen's long and close history with Islamic militants, particularly the Neo-Salafi strand of Sunni Islam. Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, many of these fighters - known as Afghan Arabs - made their way back to their countries, full of religious zeal and Wahhabi influences, and eager to replicate their successes at home.

Arab governments were worried by the prospect of a jihad within their borders. Massive crackdowns by these governments forced a number of the Afghan Arabs to flee their countries yet again. Many of them seized on an apocryphal hadith of the Prophet Muhammad: "When disorder threatens, seek refuge in Yemen". Osama bin Laden - whose family originates from Yemen - alluded to the hadith as he told Abdel-Bari Atwan of al-Quds al-Arabi in an interview in November 1996 he would like to live in Yemen where one could still breathe the air of freedom.

San'a' largely welcomed these fighters. In 1994 it turned them into a paramilitary force which helped the government put down a secession attempt by the socialist south. The Afghan Arabs were led by Shaikh Abdel-Majid al-Zindani, who has since been listed as a "specially designated global terrorist" by both the US and the UN, and Ali Muhsen al-Ahmar, a close relative of President Salah and one of the most powerful military leaders in the country. Both men had extensive contacts among the Neo-Salafi fighters.

Zindani made frequent trips to Afghanistan in the 1980s and early 1990s, and, according to the US Treasury Department, has been a "spiritual leader" of bin Laden. Ahmar is married to the sister of Tareq al-Fadhli, one of the Yemeni veterans of the war in Afghanistan and former head of the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army.

Yet, much like US support for the Afghan Arabs in the 1980s, Yemen's use of these fighters has since come back to haunt San'a'. In addition to the attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 US sailors, the French oil tanker Limburg was attacked in 2002 resulting in the death of a Bulgarian sailor who drowned after jumping overboard.

Not everyone, however, attributes the attack on the Limburg directly to al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Nasser al-Bahri, bin Laden's former chief bodyguard, who is also known as Abu Jandal, claimed in an interview with al-Quds al-Arabi in 2004 that the bombing was a rash reaction to the killing of Yahya Saleh Al-Mujalli, a local al-Qaeda operative, by government forces in San'a' in late September 2002. Earlier that year, Yemen had invited US special forces into the country as advisers and trainers, and following the attack on the Limburg, it co-operated with the unmanned Predator drone strike on Ali Qa'id Sinan al-Harithi, the suspected head of al-Qaeda in Yemen, and five of his companions in November 2002.

San'a' paid a high price for allowing the US to hit inside Yemen's borders, after a leak from the Pentagon which broke the agreement of secrecy between the two states. President Saleh felt personally betrayed by the leak, and when Yemen captured al-Harithi's replacement, Muhammad Hamdi al-Ahdal, one year later in November 2003, it refused to allow US officials to interrogate him directly. The escape of 23 al-Qaeda prisoners earlier this year occurred only a day before al-Ahdal was due to stand trial. In the aftermath of the break, there has been a great deal of confusion as to whether al-Ahdal escaped or not.

Hussein al-Jarbani of ash-Sharq al-Awsat, reported on Feb. 5 that al-Ahdal was among the escapees. On Feb. 4, the Yemen Times published what it called an "official list" of the escapees, noting that it contained only 22 names, "". Other agencies, however, said the judiciary merely delayed his trial by a week, and that he was still in custody. On Feb. 13, San'a' finally announced that al-Ahdal was still in custody, as it officially began his trial under extremely tight security.

Al-Ahdal was first captured in 2003 on a tip from a former militant who more recently was freed under the government's Religious Dialogue Council (RDC), headed by Hamoud al-Hitar. The RDC, initiated at the request of President Saleh in September 2002, is designed to convince suspected militants that violence in the name of Islam is not sanctioned by the Qur'an or the Sunna. It has since released 364 militants in six separate pardons, after their pledges to abstain from violence. Bin Laden's former bodyguard, al-Bahri, is one such graduate.

The RDC, initially part of a multi-pronged approach to remove Yemen from a "hit list" in Washington, appears to have been caught up in its perceived success through a combination of Western media reports and fewer terrorist attacks in Yemen from late 2002 to early 2005. This early euphoria led to the release of more detainees in greater frequency, and to MP Bajammal's claim that Yemen was 90% free of al-Qaeda.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Fate of the Arabian Peninsula
Date:Jun 26, 2006
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